Die Presse, January 9, 2018
Erwin Javor, businessman and former publisher of Nu explains why he talks about the humor and the world of the Viennese Eastern Jews.
He was „terribly afraid“ before the presentation, says Erwin Javor. Meanwhile we know: everything went well, his debut book is in its second edition after only a short time and Javor, who recently returned from Tel Aviv, can face today’s reading in a relaxed fashion. Particularly since he doesn't have to read himself: this task is taken over by his wife Anita Ammersfeld, the long-time head of the City Theater Walfischgasse.
„I am a Zebra“ is the title of the first book by the steel entrepreneur and co-founder of the Jewish magazine Nu. If asked for its identity, a zebra will answer „zebra:“ Because everyone in the family is a zebra. Javor’s family is Jewish, and he wanted to talk about the lost post-war world of the Eastern Jews. „I am a contemporary witness, I saw it as a child. And hardly anything has been written about it.“
So he recounts the story of those people who, after having somehow survived the Holocaust, found themselves without families and possessions alone in the Shtetl. Many departed for the United States, Canada, South America; one hundred thousand of them moved through Austria in the process, some 10,000 stayed here – like Javor’s parents.
„What left a mark on me was people’s approach to their new lives,“ says Javor. „It was a positive vibe, one wanted to catch up on everything, worked with great physical effort and integrated effortlessly – during a time when Nazis still held important positions and no welcome culture existed.
Life Between Post and Pax
Jewish life back then happened between Hotel Post, Cafe Weihburg and Cafe Pax. Specifically the Pax on Bauernmarkt served as a „mixture of coffee house, restaurant, house of prayer, black market and community center,“ in addition to also serving as a gambling hall and a marriage market. But his father also took him to see performances by [comedians] Bronner or Kreisler, says Javor – the latter primarily for linguistic explanation of the punchlines. A propos: „Every good punchline has, just like a comedy, a tragedy behind it“ says Javor, and he did try to explain Jewish life through them, too – from birth, circumcision and Bar Mitzvah to marriage and death. Although an atheist, he has been observing some holidays and rules until today, „not very consistently, but still, because I do not want to tear this chain.“
In general, he is a „typical product of this post-war generation. I grew up in Vienna, I was socialized here – an still, one suitcase is always packed.“ True rootedness is not being permitted until today – and continued in the next generation. Two of his three children no longer live in Austria; he observes similar patterns among his friends.
But he very much enjoys being in Vienna he says, „in this coffee house,“ the Café Imperial, where the waiter knows him, in the opera or in the theater, or with his - mostly non-Jewish - friends. „And still, there is something between us.“ What is it? „ I take a lot longer to truly befriend someone, to truly trust someone,“ Javor tries to explain. „How does the other person think about Jews? How does he perceive me, my community of fate, Israel?“ Questions like these need to be answered by him, and „it sometimes takes quite long,“ even if an alcohol-induced evening can speed things up, or a crisis like the Waldheim – affair or the Gaza war.
In sum, over-sensibility on his part meets „disproportionate reflection on Israel and Jews.“ Bias on both sides, also among those who bicker with the prejudices of their grandparents. In addition to the „apparent philo-Semitism, telling us how smart and rich we all are, which of course is absolutely surreal.“
In truth, by the way, there exists another explanation for the title of the book. „When I look at a zebra I do not know if I see a white animal with black stripes or a black animal with white stripes,“ explains Javor. „That is my comparison for me and the Jews. I took me quite a while to figure out who I am.“